Leveraging Labs Features for a better end user experience

Labs Features are a great way to for users to get a sneak peak at new features before they’re rolled out to the general public. Gaining feedback early allows us to make a better, more stable product for everyone.

When building a product, how do you know you’re developing the right features in the right way? Figuring out whether a feature will work for the entire user base is a major pain point, one that often leads to long internal discussions based on opinion and hypotheses. We’ve come up with a great way of getting feedback early from our most passionate users.

There are a few different approaches to gain early feedback on features:

  • Sandbox Environment — This involves releasing to a contained environment where edits aren’t real (often a replica of a live environment), providing your users with the ability to try out the new feature in a contained space. This approach allows the user to try out a particular feature without destroying or irreversibly modifying their data. However, a sandbox environment doesn’t lend itself to day-to-day use of a feature, as people have to switch over to the sandbox to try it out. Also, their behaviour is different when intentionally trying out a feature versus just using it within their day-to-day workflow.
  • Canary Release — Canary releases involve turning on the feature for a random subset of the user base (typically 10%). The idea here is the small group acts as canaries in the mine, and will provide you with feedback if a feature breaks or doesn’t work as intended. This is great for B2C products that are not mission critical or where day-to-day usage and engagement is quite low, providing the freedom to experiment with a segment of the user base. However, in a B2B setting, users and account administrators require consistency and more control over their environment.
  • Labs — Labs features are a great way to empower a user or account administrator and allow them to opt into trying out new features as part of their day-to-day workflow. This involves setting up a section within the product that allows users to turn certain features on or off. We’ve found acceptance of Labs features in a B2B environment quite powerful and we have users that often check in to see what new features are available.

When assessing the possibilities for GoToAssist Service Desk, we landed on Labs features as the best path forward. Every product has some customers that love to try anything new, while some resist change or require lead time to communicate upcoming change within their organisation. The Labs approach provides the best outcome for all these types of customers. So far, it’s been well received by our users, and the results and feedback have been awesome. Here’s what’s worked well:

Buying time for the team to react calmly to issues
Releasing features into Labs first has saved our ass many times. When we consider a feature complete and release it into Labs, users go in and turn it on — and sometimes have uncovered showstopper bugs. Examples of this are issues that prevent users from carrying out their day-to-day work, or performance issues that impair key workflows. In addition to automated alerts and feedback messages from the testers, users can always go into the Labs page and turn the feature off and resume working if there’s a serious issue. This approach provides the user with an immediate workaround, and saves the engineering team from reacting at all hours of the day (and night) to address high-impact issues that are preventing our customers from being able to work in the product.

Communicating changes in advance with the ability to preview
Rolling out a Labs feature along with customer facing communication about what’s coming up is a great way to brace people for change as well. Not everyone is really accepting of change, and we’ve relied on communicating upcoming features and encouraging users to try them out as a Labs feature first. One example of this was the new look and feel for the Service Desk product, where we communicated the change would be applied system-wide in about three weeks, encouraged users to try it out first as a Labs feature and to provide feedback. The response was truly overwhelming we received hundreds of emails with feedback and the team reviewed each and every piece of feedback. All of this helped us to realise we needed to make fairly significant optimisations based on feedback before releasing it to everyone.

Gauging reaction and how many people would use a feature
Quite often you want to try out new ideas or have a feature that is being demanded of by a few customers. There are a few times where we slipped very experimental features into Labs to gauge reaction. We have been quite surprised by the response and have seen how many users turn on particular features, thus informing us that we should make it an official feature of the product. On the flip side, we have had some very experimental features in place that haven’t really taken off, and haven’t graduated from Labs or have been killed all together.

Ability to turn it on for everyone when the team is 100% confident!
When a Labs feature has been turned by the majority of the user base that’s generally a good indication that we have iterated on the MVP of a feature enough and that there aren’t any showstopper bugs. When confidence within the team is high, the feature becomes a permanent addition to the product. Until that point, we monitor adoption of a Labs feature, continue to iterate on it, and engage with the user base on community in an effort to iron out any quirks and issues.

At the beginning of the year, we started putting more emphasis on Labs features. We haven’t been disappointed. It’s allowed us to collect more data on particular feature usage, release new features with more confidence, and engage with our customers more fully.

GoToAssist Service Desk is a service management tool. We’re writing about how we build and improve it. Read more at gotoassist.com
If you’re a Service Desk user, you can find Labs under Service Desk Settings > Account Wide Settings > Labs. We’d love to hear from you!